REL Acoustics Studio II powered subwoofer Page 2

Bass is the place
Intellectually, I realize that you can obtain deep bass from a well-designed woofer system featuring smallish drivers. However, time and again during my extended audition, I found myself saying, "All this from two 10" drivers?" The reality of deep, deep, taut bass kept overriding my logic circuits. The Studio II really delivered the LF goods.

But man-oh-man did it take some fiddlefication to get it to do so without boominess or doubling. First off, it took two visits from Sumiko's Stirling Trayle to find a good woofer location; then it took several weeks of minor adjustments to the Gain and Coarse and Fine bass controls to lock it in—a process that had to be repeated every time I changed speakers. Sumiko spends a lot of time training its dealers to set up its gear, so if you do buy a REL, especially one as expensive as a Studio II, you should expect your dealer to deliver, uncrate, and set it up for you—not to mention follow up after you've fine-tuned the system. This may not be rocket science, but it ain't all that simple either.

My first attempt at setting up the Studio II was fun but flawed. Using EgglestonWorks Andras as the primary speakers, I put the REL along the wall behind the loudspeakers (the front wall), as close to the corner as my fireplace would let me. This also happened to be within a bass-reinforcing mode; try as I might, I never quite got a seamless blend between the Andras and the Studio II. The system boomed at about 30Hz. I did considerably extend the bass capabilities of the system and managed to rediscover just how good many of my organ-recital discs sounded. However, that boominess eventually overcame my fascination with the increased extension, and I knew it was time to have the REL take a hike to a different wall.

That made all the difference in the world. After a day spent with Stirling Trayle, as well as countless hours of obsessive-compulsive tweaking, I was amazed at what a difference the Studio II made in the system—no matter what speaker I was using. Paradoxically, I found the REL worked best with bigger, fuller-range speaker systems such as the Eggleston and the Aln Circe, rather than with smaller speakers such as the B&W John Bowers Silver Signature, ProAc Response One SC, or even really tiny ones such as the B&W DM 302 or the Polk RT5. The woofer didn't do as good a job compensating for missing bass as it did reinforcing and extending deep bass on reasonably full-range loudspeakers.

This is not to say that it didn't offer improvements to small monitors. Of course, it took even more fiddling to blend the Studio II's output into the tiny ones—the higher the REL had to go, the tougher the task became. You'd expect the subwoofer to add deep bass to speakers with rolled-off LF output, and it did—the combination of the Silver Signatures and the Studio II was particularly beguiling, even though I don't normally feel that the B&Ws sound at all anemic. What did startle me was how much more open they sounded with the subwoofer in the system—and how much better they imaged. Both of these categories rank among the Silver Siggies' glories, so this was stop the presses!-level news.

This improvement was particularly noticeable, of course, on discs that had already impressed me with their openness and imaging. Take, for example, one of the three February 1998 "Recordings of the Month," Sacred Steel Guitars, Vol.2—The Campbell Brothers Featuring Katie Jackson: Pass Me Not (Arhoolie CD461). It was recorded live and does a fantastic job of putting you in the middle of a very spirited celebration of faith. Adding the Studio II to the equation allowed me to hear how much presence and impact the kickdrum had—something that most stereos never get right. But the sounds were also live-er, more in the air, and I was even more conscious of the room in which the service was being celebrated.

The Romantic Organ (Epiphany EP-4) is a recital by Kent Trittle on the huge Mantler organ in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in New York City. If ever there was a recording designed to torture a subwoofer, this is it—73 minutes of Franck, Widor, Bruckner, Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Some of the pedal tones literally shook the house: window frames threatened to pop out from the room pressurization, and I felt, rather than heard, the 16Hz C. Hoo-boy.

But the clarity and airiness of the oboe and trumpet stops was also tremendously increased—they seemed to float in the air just beyond the plain of the speakers. And the sense of an instrument in a huge space, the chapel itself, was far greater with the REL in the system.

Combining the Studio II with a full-range speaker such as the Andra just heightened the effect. The Andras did a superb job of re-creating the Mantler organ all by themselves, but in concert with the REL, the soundstage was bigger, more solid, and—startlingly—more delicate. More solid and more delicate simultaneously? Yes—the bottom end got solid and massive, as you'd expect, but this freed the rest of the spectrum to exist as tones lighter than air, which is, after all, what they are. As things opened up, they freed up. And that's something special, something I wasn't expecting.

Baby got back
The REL Studio II has forced me to reexamine my concept of what a subwoofer does. In a world where "main speakers," in some cases, don't even venture below 100Hz, the term "subwoofer" has been corrupted to the point where it means "lower-midrange driver with limited bass capacity."

This does not describe the Studio II—it truly lives up to its billing as a sub-bass system. And it seems to do so with speakers that I thought needed little or no bass reinforcement, as well as with those that benefit from an extra half (or even whole) octave of bottom-end.

But it does more than that. It also makes your primary speakers possess even more of those magical qualities you bought them for: more airiness, more sense of space, more magic.

Those qualities don't come cheap—$8000 is as much as a Class A speaker system like the B&W Silver Signature costs. When writing a review, I always hesitate to put my wallet in the reader's pocket; I try to describe what I heard and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions concerning value. On the one hand, the REL Studio II made a huge difference in the performance of every combination of components I added it to. On the other hand, none of the systems sounded bad without it.

But in a world where speaker cables can cost $15,000, can I really squawk about a well-designed, meticulously built product such as the Studio II—even if it is an $8000 subwoofer? It's not a call I'd dare to make for you—you'll need to listen to it yourself and weigh the benefits and (ouch) costs.

I'll tell you this: If you hear the REL Studio II set up to do what it's capable of doing, you're going to want one bad—no matter what the cost.

REL Acoustics
US distributor: Sumiko
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 843-4500